Closed-door trial of US journalist Evan Gershkovich begins in Russia as case denounced as sham

Journalist Evan Gershkovich has been put on trial by a Russian court – after being held for 15 months behind bars over espionage charges widely denounced as a sham.

The behind-closed-doors trial is taking place in Yekaterinburg, about 1,000 miles east of Moscow, the city where he was detained.

Prosecutors claim Mr Gershkovich gathered secret information on the orders of the CIA about a company that manufactures tanks for Russia's war in Ukraine. The charges have been ridiculed by Western nations including the US and UK, while Mr Gershkovich and his employer – The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) – have said that the reporter was only doing his job and have vehemently denied the allegations

The 32-year-old faces a sentence of up to 20 years if convicted, which is almost certain. Russian courts convict more than 99 per cent of the defendants who come before them.

“His case is not about evidence, procedural norms, or the rule of law. It is about the Kremlin using American citizens to achieve its political objectives,” the US embassy in Moscow said in a statement, calling for Mr Gershkovich's immediate release.

“This bogus accusation of espionage will inevitably lead to a bogus conviction for an innocent man,” Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Emma Tucker said in a letter to readers.

After several hours of closed proceedings, the court said the next session would take place on 13 August – an indication the case will drag on for months. The reason for the long interval was not clear.

Mr Gershkovich appeared in court in a padlocked glass defendants’ cage, his head shaved and wearing a black-and-blue plaid shirt. Reporters were allowed into the courtroom for a few minutes before the proceedings were closed.

Evan Gershkovich in court (AP)
Evan Gershkovich in court (AP)

Closed trials are standard procedure in Russia for cases of alleged treason or espionage involving classified state material, and typically last several months.

Mr Gershokovich, the American-born son of immigrants from the USSR, is the first western journalist arrested on espionage charges since the end of the Cold War.

Earlier this week, Jay Conti, executive vice president and general counsel for Dow Jones, which publishes the WSJ described the the trial as a sham.

“He was an accredited journalist doing journalism, and this is a sham trial; bogus charges that are completely trumped up,” Mr Conti told the Associated Press.

The Kremlin says the case and its arrangements are a matter for the court, but has stated – without showing any evidence whatsoever – that Mr Gershkovich was caught “red-handed”.

President Vladimir Putin has said Russia is open to the idea of a prisoner exchange involving Mr Gershkovich and that contacts with the USA have taken place.

The US has accused Russia of conducting “hostage diplomacy”.

It has designated Gershkovich and another jailed American, Paul Whelan, as “wrongfully detained” and says it is committed to bringing them home.

Many western news organisations pulled staff out of Russia after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Soon after, Russia passed laws that set long prison terms for “discrediting” the armed forces or spreading “fake news” about them.

Another journalist, Russian-American Alsu Kurmasheva, was arrested last year and is awaiting trial on charges of violating Russia's “foreign agent” law and spreading false information about the armed forces, which she denies.

Elsewhere, another Russian court extended the pre-trial detention of two journalists accused by the authorities of taking part in the activities of an “extremist” organisation founded by late opposition politician Alexei Navalny, Putin’s fiercest critic.

Moscow's Basmanny court said in a statement late on Tuesday that the detention of Konstantin Gabov, a freelance journalist who had in the past worked for Reuters, and Sergei Karelin, who had in the past worked for the Associated Press, was extended until late September.

Mr Gabov and Mr Karelin are accused of preparing material for a YouTube channel, “Navalny Live”, run by allies of Navalny, who died in an Arctic prison in February. Western nations have lined up to lay blame for the death at the Putin’s door. The charge the two men are accused of carries a jail sentence of up to six years.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report